Goshen News, Goshen, IN

February 9, 2013

GLOBAL FAITHS: Japanese adapt Buddhism


— All major religions undergo change in their spread. That has definitely been the case with Buddhism in its spread north through China and Korea into Japan.

Buddhism came to Japan late, almost 1,000 years after its founding. In the year 552 of the Christian era a Korean ruler sent a delegation to Japan commending the Buddhist religion. Although Japan has had a long history of opposition to foreign influence, the Japanese Empress Suiko encouraged the acceptance of Buddhism, and so it began its development and adaptation in Japan.

One of Buddhism’s major appeals to Japanese society was its superior culture, especially literacy, and ancient Japan was not yet literate. Most of the world is literate today, so we tend to take literacy for granted. When we stop to think about it, literacy is a requirement for civilized life — government legislation, administration and a judicial system. Literacy is also an essential in industry, business and trade. It is absolutely essential in science, not to mention history and the arts.

Japan’s acceptance of literacy along with Buddhism helps to explain Japanese writing. Like the Korean, Japanese writing is borrowed from the Chinese. Although not a tonal language like Chinese, Japanese is written with Chinese characters. Years ago when I was in theological school I saw a Japanese student show a Chinese professor a letter she had gotten from home, and he could recognize some of its characters — that they had gotten some snow, etc. — even though the Chinese professor knew no Japanese.

Buddhism’s spread to Japan led to further borrowing. Though Buddhism had come by way of Korea, Japanese Buddhists soon realized its earlier development had taken place in China. It wasn’t long therefore until Japanese scholar-monks went to China for study. From study in China these monks brought back to Japan six of the major “schools” of Buddhism that had developed in China —“denominations,” we might be inclined to call them.

One of these Chinese schools of Buddhism brought to Japan was Tendai, which is simply a transliteration of the Chinese term Tiantai, meaning big sky (not Montana!), or big heaven. Tendai made much of one of the Buddhist scriptures called the Lotus Sutra, like some Christians might give special devotion to the Gospel of John.

One Japanese Buddhist monk, Shinran (1173-1263), started out in Tendai but became disillusioned with it and pioneered two important changes. The first was in practice. Traditionally Buddhist monks were supposed to be celibate, but that clashed with the traditional Japanese value of marriage, so Shinran took a wife, Eshinni, and had six children with her, a major Japanese adaptation of Buddhism.

Shinran’s second major innovation was in doctrine. Salvation can be realized, he said, by only one invocation of the Nembutsu (referring to a deity called Amida Buddha). If even the righteous can be saved, said Shinran, how much more the wicked.

Shinran’s teaching brought into being the Jodo Shinshu denomination of Buddhism, by far the largest in Japan because of its adaptation to Japanese culture. Jodo Shinshu means “True Pure Land Sect” and offers the hope of life in a pure land after death. Maybe it became popular because the imperial house had adopted it, more likely because it suited Japanese culture.

When Christian missionaries came to Japan, many Japanese people observed that the Pauline doctrine of justification by grace through faith sounded like the teachings of Shinran’s Jodo Shinshu. Some thought the perceived similarity made it easier for Japanese people to accept Christianity. Others thought it made Japanese people feel they already had what Christianity offered.

Marlin Jeschke is professor emeritus of philosophy and religion at Goshen College. He taught at the college for 33 years.

In 1968-69, he received a fellowship in Asian Religions to study Islam and Buddhism, spending five months at the Center for the Study of Religions and Harvard Divinity School and then five months traveling in Muslim countries of the Middle East, and Buddhist countries of Southeast Asia (India, Sri Lanka, Thailand, Cambodia) and Japan.

He is also the author of several books.